To the Discussion Leader
"If I had one day to spend with anyone who ever lived, I'd choose to have dinner with Elisabeth," says author Barry Denenberg. For his first book in the Royal Diaries series, Denenberg tells the Empress of Austria's story in Elisabeth: The Princess Bride, Austria-Hungary, 1853.
Elisabeth's story is one of an arranged marriage made more difficult by a mother-in-law who schemes to keep her own power while making sure Elisabeth gets as little as possible. It is also the story of an independent spirit who balks at many of the duties and restrictions imposed by her position as a royal. Indeed, it is this independent spirit that attracted Denenberg to tell Elisabeth's story in diary form.
Denenberg says this about Elisabeth and his book. "Her extraordinary beauty, which was legendary, was complimented by her independent spirit and liberal political philosophy: characteristics of a woman born ahead of her time. She paid a dear price for her nonconformist ways. In this book, I have chosen to re-create the most dramatic moment in Sisi's (as she was called from an early age) life: her fabled meeting and subsequent marriage to the Emperor of Austria-Hungary, Franz Joseph."
"I feel like I am about to step from my childhood to the world of an Empress without a moment to catch my breath or any time to buffer the impact," writes sixteen-year-old Elisabeth, Princess of Bavaria, in 1854. In just seven months, Elisabeth has gone from being a happy and carefree girl living in her beloved family castle, Possehofen (Possi), swimming, fishing, mountain climbing, and hunting with her father and older brothers to becoming the bride-to-be of Emperor Franz Joseph I of Austria. It wasn't supposed to be this way when Elisabeth traveled with her mother and older sister Helene to visit Aunt Sophie the preceding summer. A match was to be made between Helene and the twenty-three-year-old Franz Joseph, who in addition to being Emperor of Austria is Aunt Sophie's son and therefore Elisabeth's and Helene's first cousin. But the young Emperor was more attracted to the exuberant and refreshing Elisabeth than the serious and sensible Helene. Elisabeth was both surprised and pleased when the handsome Emperor chose her to be his bride.
After the priest blesses the couple's engagement, Elisabeth returns to Possi and is caught up in a whirlwind of wedding preparations. Although she loves the daily letters and lavish gifts from the Emperor, she doesn't enjoy being in the public eye. She writes, "I wish I could go back to the way things were, then no one cared where I was or when I was going to be back. Now I am hardly ever alone."
When she isn't attending innumerable balls and banquets, Elisabeth must sit for portraits, be fitted for her extensive new wardrobe, and be tutored in languages and history in preparation for being an empress. Elisabeth realizes she is leaving her family forever and she regretfully writes, "I didn't realize until now how precious my family is to me. Now I know I love them even more than I thought. I can't imagine saying good-by to everyone."
The wedding day arrives, and Elisabeth is swept along in a flurry of activity. During the elaborate and endless ceremony she feels as if she had "already entered a netherworld somewhere between the real and the not real, where everything is a little less clear, a little less certain." It is only when the day has ended that Elisabeth has some time to herself, and she is able to sort things out and "record this, the most important day of my life in my most precious diary." And so her new life, as Empress of Austria, begins.
Thinking About the Book
- What are Elisabeth's best qualities? What are her worst? Do you think she would have made a good friend?
- Why do you think Elisabeth's Aunt Sophie preferred that her son, the Emperor, marry Helene instead of Elisabeth?
- Elisabeth's parents were very different individuals. How would you describe each of them?
- Why did the Emperor wish to marry Elisabeth rather than her older sister Helene?
- In her diary, Elisabeth seems to have truly fallen in love with Emperor Franz Joseph. What did she like about him?
- Why does the thought of living at the Hofburg Palace send shivers down her spine. How are the Austrian Palaces of Hofburg and Schonbrunn different from the Possi, her childhood home?
- Elisabeth often spoke in just a whisper. Why?
- Elisabeth says, "I am a slave to my hair." What does she mean?
- Read the Epilogue to find out about Elisabeth's married life. What kind of person did she become? How did her people regard her?
- Do you think Elisabeth: The Princess Bride tells a happy story or a sad one? Explain.
- Read the poem about the days of the week that Elisabeth includes in her diary entry for July 27th, 1853. Elisabeth felt she was lucky because she was a Sunday's child. What day of the week were you born? Is what the poem says about your day true for you?
- Have each member of your discussion group select one of the terms listed below and explain what that term means and how it applies to Elisabeth's story. Archduke Francis Ferdinand Possi trousseau anorexia nervosa chamber pot equestrian
- In her July 19th, 1853 entry, Elisabeth recalls pleasant memories of Christmas. In fact, she considers Christmas her own personal holiday. Why? What is your favorite holiday? Why?
- The coach which carried Elisabeth on her wedding day was drawn by "four pairs of the most magnificent, snow white Lipizzaner horses." The Lipizzaner horses today are world famous and perform all around the globe. Learn more about these beautiful horses and share something interesting that you learn about the Lipizzaners with members of your discussion group.
- On October 19, 1853, Elisabeth tells of attending the theater in Munich with the Emperor. She writes, "There was a performance of the William Tell Overture scheduled, but the King ordered it withdrawn because he most strongly disapproved of the plot." Check out the story of William Tell. Why do you think the King might disapprove of the plot?
Discussion Guide written by Richard F. Abrahamson, Ph.D., Professor of Literature for Children and Young Adults, University of Houston, Houston, Texas and Eleanore S. Tyson, Ed.D., Clinical Associate Professor, University of Houston, Department of Curriculum and Instruction, Houston, Texas.